"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Manager’s Nightmare–Life In An Ethnic Shark Tank

Ry Tippett hated three things – tardiness, excuses, and irresolution – and while he was marching to his own drummer as a Loan Officer at the International Development Bank, he could ignore the inefficiency of his colleagues and get on with his own work. In fact, the management of his loans was so successful that the long-overdue promotion he had been hoping for finally became a reality. He was named Chief of the Environmental Alliance Division and took over a staff of 25. For the first time in his professional career, he had to manage people, not loans.

The Bank, not unlike other large institutions, promoted its staff on the basis of technical performance and seniority.  Tippett had performed his duties well over the ten years he had been with the Bank, and there was no objection to his assuming management responsibilities.  With intelligence, discipline, hard work, and experience the transition from a job requiring financial savvy, a mastery of accounting, and a fluency in Bank lending guidelines and regulations to one of human relations, time management, and paper flow should be effortless.  For Ry Tippett, however, it was not.

In fact once he settled into his corner office, leafed through the briefing documents the previous Division Chief had left for him, and organized his bookshelf, he felt at loose ends. “Now what?”, he said to himself.

Fortunately his Executive Secretary had been at the Bank far longer than he, had survived three reorganizations, five Division Chiefs and hundreds of Indian, Pakistani, Bulgarian, and Ethiopian engineers and economists.  She understood men, quickly figured out the particular weaknesses of every staff member, and was the de facto ruler of the fourth floor.   Within weeks of a new recruit’s arrival on the fourth floor, Eva Thompson fitted them with traces, harness, reins, and bit; and rode them like an experienced horsewoman.



The problem was that she didn’t like Ry Tippett.  She sensed his unease with his new position, his timidity when it came to giving orders, and his reticence in meetings. Eva always conflated sexuality with management, and quickly pegged Tippett as a pushover in the office and flaccid in bed.  She knew that she would have great fun riding him.

Eva was a great help in the early going.  She organized Tippett’s work, planned his meetings, and filed his correspondence. Of course she could not manage the office for him and was increasingly dismayed at his total ignorance of human nature. He criticized when praise was required.  He played hail-fellow-well-met with his staff when he should have had them on the carpet. He gave treacly inspirational speeches when he should have been dry and technical; and he assigned the wrong tasks to the wrong people.  As a result office morale dipped to its lowest point in years, performance suffered, and mutinous talk had begun in the washrooms.

“There are three things I will not abide”, he began at one of his first staff meetings. “Tardiness, excuses, and irresolution; and you will all be judged accordingly.”

Now, most of his staff thought he was joking.  No one could possibly take his schoolmarm scolding seriously.  This was the World Bank after all, la crème de la crème of international development, and no one in their right mind would disrespect professionals who had been high-level officials and functionaries in their countries of origin.

Image result for images 19th century schoolmarm


Worst of all he had chosen the least appropriate maxims for his multicultural staff.  True to form, the Latin Americans were always late, the South Asians never gave a straight story; and the Africans, most of them having fled political persecution, kept their heads down, rarely spoke, and never offered an opinion.

Those who choose to stay at the International Development Bank do so because of the salary, generous benefits, and privileged US visa status. Those few who leave have either been chewed up in the cannibalistic inter-ethnic rivalries or frustrated by the impossibly slow pace of the bureaucracy. It was not a place for the faint-hearted.

Most of the Loan Officers were insulated from much of the internecine and open warfare of the ethnic cliques.  They watched Division Chiefs and Department Directors come and go, but the Bank was so quick to replace them that the battlefield was not littered for long.  Ry Tippett, therefore, was totally unprepared for the skirmishes and firefights of his Division.  The Environmental Alliance Division was an outlier, removed from the scrum of loan money allocation and from the bureaucratic monotony of endless revisions, reviews, and approvals; but because of its irregular statute, and the necessity of securing non-bank funds, it was a no-holds barred unit; and the scramble for project money and influence was far worse than in any other part of the organization.

Ry Tippett was completely out of his element. He was so completely ineffectual and the office morale so bad, that staff members deliberately straggled in late, prevaricated and invented weirdly convoluted stories to cover their tracks, and displayed the energy and initiative of a pride of lions after a kill.

Image result for images pride of lions sleeping after eating  a kill


Eva Thompson, of course, loved stirring the pot, spreading rumors about plots and subplots and telling stories of miffed and riled staff members who were about to go to their Country Vice-Presidents to complain about his irresponsible management and employee abuse.  She had seen many Division Chiefs in her time, but none as incompetent and clueless as Tippett.  Many in the Bank said that she, a canny and brilliant Rasputin, was behind the demise of each and every one.

The sooner this loser was left on the curb the better, she thought. He was no challenge at all, showed no deftness or agility in dealing with either her or his growing adversaries on the staff.  He dazedly moved papers from one file folder to another, led increasingly hectoring meetings, and watched the performance numbers drop through the floor with remove and a shrug. “It’s not my fault”, he said to himself.

Meanwhile the ethnic sharks and barracudas rejoined their schools, found comfort and political support with their own kind, and worked to bring down Tippett but at the same time to leave a favorable theatre of war for when he was gone. Intense lobbying went on behind the scenes to assure the promotion of Lal Bahadur Gupta, a favorite of the Indian community who always repaid his personal debts, promoted the cause of his divisions, and never forgot a favor.  Or Islam Mohammed Khan, former Pakistani Minister of Health who had managed a sinecure at the Bank because of his ties with the former President and who looked out for his countrymen before all others.

Image result for images schools of barracudas


The Americans were totally outclassed in these perennial struggles. Ignoring the realities of the Bank, they stuck to their principles of honesty, hard work, and moral rectitude and lost out all the time.  They never even anticipated the fall of Tippett let alone positioned themselves for the post-regnum period.

Even in his last week in office, Tippett still harped on his three maxims despite the fact that no one came to meetings, told the truth or showed any initiative or enterprise.  When he was called in to see the Director, he was ready to deliver a speech suggesting the help he needed from top management to improve the performance of his unit, name names, and receive his plaudits.

Instead he was blindsided by the terse and peremptory, “Tippett, you’re out”.

He could no longer stay with the bank.  Just like in the military when you have been passed over for promotion or demoted, your best path was back to civilian life; and so Ry Tippett hung out his own shingle as an International Development Consultant.  Marching once again to his own drummer, he did fine.  “It was that management thing”, he confided to a friend. “And those bloody Pakistanis.  Otherwise I would have been fine.”

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